The notion of collegiate secret societies conjures up images of strange initiation rituals, secret midnight meetings, and an elite class of people consolidating their power in wood-paneled drawing rooms. Portions of this stereotype may prove true; after all, secret societies have produced a disproportionate number of influential leaders in business and politics (Yale's Skull and Bones, for example, has thus far produced three U.S. presidents). But one could also argue that these secret societies represent more "networking fraternities" than "sinister cults."
Regardless of your stance, these groups hold an undeniable air of secrecy around their proceedings, and outsiders typically learn about their inner workings only through rumors and hearsay. Given the inherently elitist nature of secret societies, many of the colleges on this list belong to the Ivy League, though others demonstrate that secrecy and exclusivity can find a home at any institution of higher learning.
|New Haven, CT||
When it comes to secret societies, Yale's Skull and Bones occupies a prominent place in the public imagination, having appeared in movies, TV shows, and novels. The ultra-elite organization, which admits 15 new members each year, dates back to 1832, when future business mogul William Huntington Russell and future politician Alphonso Taft co-founded the group after a dispute among other Yale social clubs.
Skull and Bones evolved into one of the most exclusive societies in the Ivy League, and members typically rise to the highest levels of business and politics: former Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and William Howard Taft were all Bonesmen, along with Secretary of State John Kerry and Time magazine founder Henry Luce. Skull and Bones' utter secrecy and the lofty stature of its members have led to an assortment of conspiracy theories, including purported connections to the Illuminati and other organizations that presumably rule the world in secret.
University of North Carolina
|Chapel Hill, NC||
Undoubtedly one of the most disturbing groups in higher education, University of North Carolina's (UNC) Order of Gimghoul remains -- like any good secret society -- cloaked in mystery. Even the order's origins offer cause for speculation. As far as confirmed details go, the group named itself for Peter Dromgoole, a real UNC student who vanished in 1833. The most commonly held story claims that Dromgoole died in a duel over a woman, and his body may or may not be buried beneath the site of the group's meeting place, a stone castle constructed on the UNC campus in 1924. The group eventually changed its name to Gimghoul (because it sounded more sinister), and here ends most confirmed facts.
The order apparently admits only male upperclassmen, and existing photos showcase affluent white men posed with one recurring symbol: the image of the devil. While supposedly based in the Arthurian chivalric tradition, Gimghoul's occult aesthetic exudes a level of creepiness unmatched by most other societies.
Washington and Lee University
While the Ivy League may receive the most attention for its various elite societies, Washington and Lee shows that lesser-known colleges can boast plenty of strange secrecy. The school's evocatively named Cadaver Society operates totally in the shadows, with all members maintaining complete anonymity. Supposedly populated with academically astute pre-med students, the group takes as its symbol a skull and the letter C, both of which can be found scrawled throughout the Washington and Lee campus.
Rumors claim that Cadaver members roam the campus at night clad in black cloaks and skull masks, leaving their mark wherever they see fit. Another rumor holds that members travel the campus through a network of secret tunnels that connect to the basements of many buildings. Like many societies, the Cadavers' eerie traditions seem at odds with their supposed generosity, which includes past donations to the college of more than $150,000.
Dartmouth's status as the smallest of the Ivy League colleges doesn't stop the school from hosting a wide assortment of secret societies -- more than a dozen total, with nearly a third of all seniors claiming membership in at least one organization.
The best known of these groups, the Sphinx Society, occupies a mysterious Egyptian revival building known as the Sphinx Tomb. Rumored to contain a swimming pool and secret passages connecting to various buildings around campus, the Sphinx Tomb hosts a variety of unconfirmed clandestine activities. A persistent allegation that the Sphinxes steal artwork from around campus as part of an annual scavenger hunt was confirmed in 1989, when Dartmouth administrators traced the theft of around $12,000 worth of items back to the group. The scandal resulted in fines and a one-year loss of official recognition for the Sphinxes, but the group continues to operate to this day.
|New Brunswick, NJ||
As far as secrecy goes, Rutgers' Order of the Bulls' Blood deserves high marks: some historians claim the group doesn't even exist, dismissing it as an elaborate hoax. Whatever its true status, the Order has claimed responsibility for an array of pranks over the past century and a half, most of which target rival Princeton University.
Supposedly dating back to 1834, the Order made its public debut in 1875, when it stole a cannon from Princeton. In the 21st century, the group committed a string of vandalism incidents around the Princeton campus, including spraying graffiti on buildings and another cannon. The group has also pulled pranks on football rival University of Michigan, showing that its ire doesn't target Princeton exclusively. Whether a genuine secret society or just a group of troublemakers, the Order maintains a hallowed place in Rutgers lore.
As an emblem of Ivy League elitism, Harvard deserves a place on any list of colleges with secret societies, and the school's Porcellian Club certainly fits the bill. Open only to male students from powerful families, the group's past members include President Theodore Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The group's name come for the Latin word for pig, and members often sport neckties or rings with porcine imagery to indicate their affiliation with the group.
Like most secret societies, the group's inner workings remain unknown to outsiders, though nonmembers can at least gaze upon the group's headquarters -- a mansion known as the "Old Barn" -- which sits across from Harvard Yard. Among the most enduring rumors concerning the group: any member who does not earn his first million by age 40 receives a million dollars courtesy of the Porcellian Club.
University of Virginia
Many secret societies call University of Virginia home, but none occupies a larger place in campus lore than the Seven Society -- a highly exclusive group whose symbols adorn the college's campus. While outsiders know almost nothing about the society's activities, the Seven's gestures often appear more generous than sinister. For example, during the college's 1947 commencement address, a small explosion distracted the audience long enough for the Seven Society to drop a check for $177,777.77 amid the chaos. The college used the funds to establish an emergency interest-free loan fund for students and faculty.
Throughout the years, the Seven Society has funded other campus initiatives, such as funds for scholarships, fellowships, and even a new set of bells for the campus chapel. Society membership remains a secret until death, when banners appear at the deceased member's funeral. The campus' chapel bells also supposedly toll every seven seconds for seven minutes during a Seven member's funeral.
Princeton officially banned secret societies more than a century ago, so the school's elitism operates out in the open in the form of "eating clubs." The most of exclusive of these groups, the Ivy Club, maintains a reputation for blue-blooded aristocracy, and those who pass the club's rigorous screening process gain access to one of the most elite alumni networks on the planet.
Prospective Ivy members endure no fewer than 10 rounds of interviews, lasting more than seven hours total. After this extensive process, the group's 130 members vote on new admissions, and even one vote for rejection results in a prospect's dismissal. Those who do make the cut supposedly experience a variety of hazing rituals, including being passed naked down a staircase in the club's extravagant mansion. Unlike many Ivy League societies, the Ivy Club admits female members, though only those from the most illustrious backgrounds.
New York University
|New York, NY||
Unique among most campus secret societies, New York University's Eucleian Society dedicates its efforts to literary arts and intellectual debate, rather than world domination. Founded in 1832, the group initially served as a forum for discussions of literature and politics, offering a more open-ended approach to education that contrasted with standard university practices of the time. Receiving stable funding through a trust established by a wealthy member's family, the Eucleian Society hired guest lecturers such as Edgar Allan Poe. The group also published literary magazines and maintained its own private library.
While it lacked many of the rituals and secrecy of other societies, the Eucleian still maintained the elitism that characterizes most groups: members were uniformly white, male, and from wealthy families like the Rockefellers. The group collapsed in the 1940s as many members left to fight in World War II, but in 2017, NYU's graduate creative writing program revived the Eucleian Society with a less elitist bent.
College of William and Mary
William and Mary's Flat Hat Club doesn't boast the all-out secrecy of some societies, and the rumors surrounding its inner workings remain relatively tame (no satanic imagery or secret tunnels here). However, the Flat Hats win major respect as the oldest collegiate secret society in the U.S., with a history that dates back to 1750. Not even the Ivy League elite boast societies with a more than 250-year history -- at least, not that outsiders know about -- and the Flat Hat Club is also the only group that claims Thomas Jefferson as a member (even if he later derided the club as serving "no useful object").
Originally named for the Latin Phrase "fraternitas, humanitas, et cognito," meaning "brotherhood, humanity, and knowledge," the group died out during the Revolutionary War, but revival efforts in both 1916 and 1972 brought the Flat Hat Club back into campus culture.
Since most of these societies choose not to divulge much about themselves, outsiders may never know the true extent of their inner workings, which makes it difficult to determine any real quantitative ranking. However, the information that does exist on these organizations certainly paints some as stranger than others. Accordingly, this ranking explores what our knowledge about each society reveals about it. From the scholarly to the sinister, this list also considers history, selectivity, and uniqueness.